Yoseph Maguire on writing and self-expression

English courses at Rice inspired the electrical and computer engineering alumnus to improve his communication skills.

Yoseph Maguire

Whether his subject is wireless technology, history, or nature, Yoseph Maguire ’18 writes as a way to weave chaos into consumable expression.

“No one sees most of what I put down. I think it’s because I’m afraid of adding more noise to the world. So I keep a lot of my writing to myself. Communication—wherever it is and however it is expressed—starts with you. If you don’t know who you are, or what you believe in, or what you care about, or your strengths, or your weaknesses, or your audience, then whatever it is you’re trying to communicate risks being less signal and more noise. My fear a lot of the time is that I don’t know who I’m writing for or who I am and that the writing I produce is chaos… it’s noise.”

Despite his expressed insecurities, Maguire has over the years honed his writing into a strong tool for self-expression. He pursued a major in electrical and computer engineering while at Rice University and leveraged his non-major specific coursework to study a diversity of topics that piqued his interest. Professors like Carl Caldwell and Lacy Johnson pushed Maguire to improve his writing. Caldwell is the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History and Johnson is an associate professor of creative writing in the English department. Their courses were challenging, and their lessons stayed with Maguire.

Laughing softly, he reminisces about those courses.

“I might have wished Carl was less eager with his mark-ups. He’s known as a tough grader, but he’s also inspiring. I’m a better thinker because of him. Dr. Johnson’s course, Nature Non-Fiction Writing… I took it as a senior and, honestly, did not do well. I barely read the required readings and my essays were mediocre word mush. But the topics stuck with me and tormented me, in a way. I ended up becoming steeped in the contradictions society builds around Nature after graduating, first by working at Philmont Scout Ranch as a backcountry guide that summer and then moving to Seattle, a picturesque ‘Nature hotspot,’ to work for Microsoft.

“Whether it was coincidence or divine placement,” he says, “I was continually confronted with this concept of ‘Nature’ and the way we have artificially defined it. Friends would talk about how ‘good’ the Nature was in Seattle. What makes nature good? Its ability to be consumed aesthetically? A lack of recognizable human intervention? I kept going back to and diving into those readings Lacy had given us, thinking about the contradictions in how we perceive, interact with and consume nature. It’s something I still wrestle with.”

Even if they ‘torment’ him, he likes exploring and writing about contradictions. In 2016 he contributed an Op-Ed piece for the Rice Thresher titled “Have we ignored the beast social media has become?” calling out classmates for selectively ignoring the ethical problems of working for a company like Facebook while easily lambasting the oil and gas industry. He describes leaning in and trying to understand this ethical double standard he felt he observed.

“As I worked through my Rice courses and internships, I remember thinking that the Technology Industry… we were all trying to get these prestigious jobs at Facebook and Google and Two Sigma and Microsoft… and it reminded me of Oil and Gas Industry, and of my parents and their peers,” he said.

Maguire, like many Houstonians, has a personal connection to the Oil and Gas Industry.  he said, “My father worked in oil and gas as a geoscientist. He was a nerd who liked maps and needed a job after college. And my mother studied English Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo before getting a job at Shell and moving to London, where they met. Both worked hard for the opportunity to make a good life for themselves and their children.

“[Oil and gas companies] would offer incredible salaries for smart nerds straight out of university to work on technically interesting projects. I thought, hey, that sounds familiar.” His exploration of tech’s dirty underbelly led him to write his Thresher Op-Ed. Now a Software Engineer at Microsoft, Maguire says he still devotes significant time toward writing, even in his job.

“In my experience, Software Engineering is a lot of coordination and communication, especially at a larger tech company. Take writing code: if you are creating a software product you need to document it somehow, usually through code comments, API documentation, and or samples. I mean sometimes even I need to read my own code comments to understand my code.”

And when it comes to working with others, he says his learned talent for writing has become an invaluable asset.

“When there’s a communication breakdown on a project, everyone suffers. I’ve learned that the hard way. Now, as I lead a project for our team, I’ve been meticulous about crafting good planning documentation, project scope documentation, and project pitching documentation to present to leadership. It’s how I was able to get this project approved, and how I was able to scope out the work for multiple people to work on in addition to myself.”

Of course, writing doesn’t have to be a clinical and utilitarian task. When asked why he chose writing over say painting, drawing, speaking, graphic design, or even coding, Maguire emphasized his personal comfort. “Growing up, no matter what I was dealing with, I always journaled privately as a way to pull myself out of the chaos in my own mind. When I began publishing some of my work on the web, there were definitely times I wondered if I should stop posting. Was I just another mediocre writer in the already loud and crowded space of our modern society?”

“But I write to express myself and because I enjoy it. Writing helps me connect the dots and think subjectively about the reality in which I live, in a way I can comprehend. And when someone else reads what I’ve written and likes it, it feels really good. Here’s my distilled form of self-expression, and people like it.”

Much of his writing about the Tech Industry and Technology follows this process of abstraction and analysis.

“I like Signal Processing and its novel applications. DoJo (Don H. Johnson, a professor in the ECE department) has used 2D Fourier transforms on X-Rays of paintings to help determine painting authenticity. During my senior year at Rice, I traveled to Amsterdam to speak with some of his collaborators to learn more about their work analyzing paintings for the Van Gogh Museum. When I write, I take a non-technical approach to this process of extracting meaning from signals. I always think about how to treat my lived experience as a signal, and my writing as an abstraction. I’m always tweaking my writing, tweaking my lens of abstraction.”

A Cheat Sheet for Contextualizing New Technology illustrates Maguire’s pursuit of distilled understanding. He weaves his personal experiences with actionable thought patterns anyone can use when thinking about applying new technological tools. Getting his first mobile phone in middle school, adapting his social time to group calls and games on his iPhone in high school, and battling social media addiction in college become the cautionary backdrop to warn of the secondary or ‘unintended’ consequences of new technological applications.

On the topic of advice for current and future Engineering students, Maguire emphasizes authenticity. “One of my mentors said to me recently, ‘Don’t choose things that don’t line up with your truth.’ He runs a bar, and customers sometimes come up to him suggesting he add a hookah (a water pipe for flavored tobacco common in Middle Eastern cultures) as an easy way to make extra money.

“But he says to them, ‘It just doesn’t fit what I know about myself and what I’m going after with my business. So I’m not ever going to do it.’”

“That kind of self-awareness and long-term perspective is important regardless of what kind of work you do. Differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t; do the mental legwork to determine your own internal heuristics. Some things you can’t control —your background, your culture, how you were raised —but for the things you can control, do what lines up,” said Maguire.

At work that perspective has led to unintended success for Maguire. He said, “There have been times when I am on a project and because there are so many different people involved, things start getting lost and the goal becomes opaque. So I’ve made it a habit of writing summary emails compiling information from different people and sources so that no one can say they don’t have all the information. It’s there and clearly presented with supporting documentation and links.”

He describes this work as extraordinarily undervalued. “If I hit a problem with a piece of code I’m working on, it’s not hard to Google it, and find an answer on Stack Overflow, or ask a more senior engineer for guidance. But when communication breaks down, you can’t just ‘fix it’ like a software bug. It takes a level of quick comprehension and a strong innate grasp of communication to get over the issue and move the project forward.” And that means getting back to the fun stuff, like problem-solving and making interesting new products.

Asked about any advice he might have for current Rice students, Maguire said, “at Rice, it’s easy to think there is a ‘right way’ through life, but there isn’t. Be okay with failing.

“There’s a funny song I listen to about advice. It says ‘Wear Sunscreen. If I could offer you one tip for the future, Sunscreen would be it. The Long-Term Benefits of Sunscreen has been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering existence.’ That’s also my advice. Remember that.”

When it comes to his own life, Maguire said one of his best decisions was to minimize the impact of social media on his day-to-day activities. When he reached a point where he felt his social media channels were controlling his choices, he pulled the plug on those accounts.

“Leave social media, if you can,” he said. “You can come back to it. But if you’re going to use tools or technology, use them on your own terms. If you can’t exist without your phone, if you have this itch to ‘check your calendar’ but find you are on Instagram instead, you aren’t using those tools on your own terms.”

Maguire says that while he is most comfortable with his current style of essay writing, he is cautious about getting too comfortable without exploring other forms of communication fully. “I’ve recently begun exploring other mediums, including poetry and multi-media art. Just because writing is comfortable doesn’t mean I shouldn’t explore.

“I met this Cuban artist recently, Novo, who told me about a piece of representative abstraction he created. Using a software tool, he calculated the weight of the ink in five revolutionary texts of totalitarian regimes and then used the relative weights to paint five black rectangles on the wall of the Hirschhorn Museum in D.C. I love that. Writing is a distillation of thought and experience, and here he is further distilling, abstracting thought and in a way adding his own. It’s not hard, painting black rectangles on a wall, but to me, the process and the concept, it is very inspiring.”

This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.